There’s a powerful scene in the documentary A Better Man that might give some viewers pause. Attiya Khan, a survivor of a two-year abusive relationship, travels with her ex-boyfriend Steve to the site of their old apartment. With the help of Tod Augusta-Scott, a Halifax-based domestic-abuse therapist, they’ve spent the better part of the film up to this point discussing the intense emotional and physical pain Steve inflicted on Khan 20 years earlier.
As they sit on the curb outside the Ottawa home where, as teenagers, they lived together while attending an area high school — and where Steve hurled insults at her, controlled her, and abused her — Khan begins to feel ill. What happens next is surprising and transformative. She runs behind the building, thinking she might be sick; Steve’s instinct seems to be to accompany her, and he puts his hand on her back. But then he catches himself and asks whether she minds his being there. “No, not at all,” she says.
That moment illustrates the contribution this film makes to the conversation about domestic and partner abuse: it highlights survivors’ need for acknowledgement and understanding, and explores the potential for abusers to take accountability and make real change. Although it deals with violence and emotionally wrenching material, the film itself is quiet.
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A Better Man (produced in association with TVO and airing this Saturday, Nov. 25, at 9 p.m.) was co-directed by Khan and Lawrence Jackman. I contacted Khan by email to ask her some questions about the film and her hopes for it, her life now, and why it was important to include Steve in her healing process.
At the end of the film, you tell guests at a gathering to mark the anniversary of escaping Steve that you had received clarity and some kind of peace from meeting with him. You also say there’s more to do. How did you approach the healing process before you met with him, and how has this experience changed that process?
It’s important for people to know that sitting down with Steve and discussing our past relationship was what I wanted, what I needed, to move forward. This is the path I’ve chosen. The process was careful, safe, and respectful. My story, and this film’s intention, is to share our conversation in the hopes of lifting the silence surrounding domestic violence and learning from our story. It is not about telling other people what they should do and to follow my path. This being said, I do believe that people who have experienced violence need more choices when it comes to seeking justice. Steve discussing his past abusive behaviours toward me in a public way with the hope that it will help others has provided a sense of justice and healing for me.
Before I sat down with Steve, I thought that I had dealt with the trauma over the twenty years since I had escaped from him. After having honest conversations with Steve, I now know that I had been coping, not healing.
Right after I left Steve, I knew that I wanted to work with women who experience domestic violence. Having this goal really helped me to move forward. I took my anger and used it to help me get through high school, university, and then college. Having supportive friends that I could talk openly with, who listened and believed my story from the start, really helped me.
Through the process of making the film, I started to heal. This was unexpected. After our first conversation on camera, I mentioned to Steve that I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I told him that our conversation was affecting me in huge and positive ways. I was having fewer panic attacks, fewer nightmares. I was sleeping better. I wasn’t always afraid that he was going to hurt me. I stopped safety planning everywhere I went. All of these changes made me calmer, more content, and finally able to breath in a way that I hadn’t since I was in a relationship with him. When Steve heard that I was starting to heal, he offered to have more conversations on camera.
Viewers may have questions about why teachers and bystanders didn’t help you at the time — they seemed to know about it, but didn’t intervene. Why didn’t they?
Many people do not know what to do when it comes to intervention. It can be scary. It can be triggering for some. It can seem like we are interfering. Domestic violence is still seen as a private issue, and this has to change. Intervention can save lives. Intervention can happen when verbal or physical violence is occurring, but it can also happen before or after an incident. I wish my teachers, neighbours, witnesses had acknowledged the violence. I wish they had told me that they knew I was being hurt (even if I denied it, as many people who experience violence are forced to do, or are too ashamed to admit) and that if I needed anything at any time, they were there for me.
Our website, abettermanfilm.com, contains many resources for people who want to reflect on and learn more about intervention.
The scene at the old apartment seems to be a moment of reconciliation for you both. Can you explain what was happening for you?
That was a very intense moment for me — maybe the most intense moment in the film. Being in front of the apartment with Steve, where he used to hurt me, was overwhelming. I could not control how my body was reacting. Intellectually, I felt all right. I understood that I was safe. I initiated this trip to Ottawa and wanted to be there with Steve because I thought it could be therapeutic to confront my memories with him. Even though I almost threw up, it did end up being therapeutic for me. Having Steve ask if it was okay for him to be there and to have him put his hand gently on my back for comfort made me feel supported. I had never experienced that kind of care from him before, so it meant a lot to me.
People who watch the film may come away with a sense that both you and Steve are courageous. Did you feel the process you went through, and then filmed, took courage — or was it just a necessary next step for you?
I think it is courageous when anyone shares their story of experiencing abuse, although there are also many valid, important, and courageous reasons why others don’t share their stories. I do think Steve is courageous for being accountable in a public way for the violence he used against me. After screenings, people line up to talk with me and over and over again, I hear people saying they think both Steve and I are brave for participating in this conversation together. However, these sentiments are whispered to me. People stumble over their words when they express that Steve is brave. They don’t want to offend me or feel like they are minimizing the harm he inflicted on me. I reply that it is okay to think Steve is courageous for the work he is doing now to take responsibility, and still be angry for what he did to me. We can feel more than one emotion for someone who has hurt someone.
The process I followed felt important in moving forward. I really wanted to ask Steve about the violence he used against me. I wanted to tell him about the details of the abuse that had haunted me for 20 years. I needed him to know how his use of violence impacted me. I felt this was necessary for me to move on.
Ultimately, what do you hope this film will accomplish?
I hope this film will encourage people to have respectful conversations about domestic violence and encourage people to take action. I hope people will talk about ways to help both the person who has experienced violence and the person who is using violence. It’s worth finding out what resources exist in your community so that if you know someone who is experiencing or using violence and they want help, you can pass on that information.
I’ve been told that the film and our accompanying interactive project It Was Me compel people to look at their own lives and how they treat others. We are all capable of harming others, and we are all capable of striving to be better. I’m thrilled that A Better Man is being piloted right now in a few high schools across Ontario in collaboration with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. Requests for screenings are coming in from communities and workplaces across Canada, the U.S., Europe, South America, Australia, and beyond. It is clear that the film starts much-needed conversations about domestic violence. The film is a tool to get people talking. We need to create respectful and brave spaces to have these conversations.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
A Better Man premieres on TVO this Saturday, Nov. 25, at 9 p.m.